Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang met through the most boring of rock ‘n’ roll connections: They had the same booking agent. Just as Guy’s celebrity was reaching the apex during the blues revival of the ’80s and ’90s, Lang was emerging as a star, a 14-year-old kid with unbelievable chops and a gritty voice that belied his tender years. His first tour found him on a bill with Guy, and the young Lang was thrilled to be sharing the stage with a living guitar legend, but he was also nervous that his own skills might be found wanting. Luckily for Lang, Buddy’s a nice guy.
“Before getting to know him, he was one of my favorite guitar players, and then yeah, I was just constantly starstruck every time I was around him,” Lang says. “That took a while to wear off. And now, it’s just really cool to become friends with him over the years and get to know him and hear all of his amazing stories, you know, from him playing around for all of those years with Muddy Waters and all those guys. It’s pretty incredible. I’m very, very lucky to be able to go out on the road with a guy like that.”
But while their connection sprang from trivial circumstances, it has been big for both parties. They have remained close, with Lang using frequent appearances with Guy to help buttress his growing reputation and Guy leaning on his young friend as a reliable draw for their frequent tours.
Their styles differ pretty drastically, especially lately. Guy, a Waters disciple who plays with even more gusto, still opts for solos that are unflinching and precise, and he still sings with a seductive swagger. Lang’s style has diversified, drifting from feats of guitar virtuosity to trips into Top 40, R&B, country, and soul. Despite these differences, Lang insists that their connection remains strong.
“I’m the new guy here, and he could have treated me like a little kid and his underling, you know? But he never, ever has done anything like that. He’s only, always been just very respectful. And to feel respected by a guy like that, for me as a young guitar player, you can imagine what that would do to somebody,” Lang says. “Over the years, we’ve done tons of shows together. It’s something that we kind of do just about every year is go on the road for at least a week or two if not more. It’s become a bit of a tradition, I guess.”
For Lang, this tradition also serves as a healthy burst of credibility. His recent records have tested the limits of the blues with decidedly mixed results. On 2006’s Turn Around, his enthusiasm for his Christian faith boiled over into songs that are overbearing in their religiosity — not to mention shockingly dull and uninventive for a guitar player known for intensity and ingenuity.
The solid Live at the Ryman arrived in 2009, recasting some of Turn Around‘s better moments with enough fire to outshine their inadequacies. But 2012’s Fight for My Soul was another head-scratcher. It’s definitely more compelling than Turn Around, and while its name might suggest otherwise, its religious themes are stated with appropriate finesse. Still, it’s a mishmash of ideas that doesn’t always work.
“We Are the Same,” an obvious highlight, takes a surly blues riff and meshes it with sleek soul, silky strings, and passionate vocals. Then there’s “Breakin’ In,” which sets its sights on Prince’s candy-coated funk, but the tunes lacks that icon’s conviction and vigor. The results suggest what the Backstreet Boys might sound like if they decided to make a blues record — overproduced and reliant on knee-jerk hooks.
That said, there’s far too much potential in Lang’s new explorations to reject them outright. If he keeps pushing, he could very well end up with something that breaks boundaries in truly interesting ways. But that won’t help when it comes to winning over the blues purists, which is why it’s a good thing he still has Buddy on his side.
“There’s a few hardcore people that get literally upset, just mad, that you didn’t do what they had in mind,” Lang says. “It’s funny to me because that absolute of a stance, where does it end? Where do you draw the line? If we’re going to go there, then I shouldn’t be playing blues music at all. I’m a white kid from North Dakota, born in the ’80s, man. I am not a contender for that lifestyle that music came out of. If we’re going to get hardcore blues purist about it, then just disqualify me from the get-go and let’s move on.”